The Old Meeker Ranch

We’ve geocached in 40 states. The only areas we haven’t explored are New England and the Pacific Northwest. But out of all that, our favorite geocaching destination is the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Black Hills have it all – scenery, open spaces, mines, ghost towns, trails and more places to explore than you can do in one trip. And there are geocaches everywhere. You could geocache and explore there for the rest of your life and never get bored. They have everything from drive ups to day long quests. One of those quests took us to an abandoned homestead nestled deep in the hills. Locals call it the Old Meeker Ranch.

First look on the road in

First look

You can drive to within a mile on a forest service road with a locked gate. Then you walk in. This is the first view you get when you come over the rise. The pictures simply don’t do it justice. It is a breathtaking scene.

Natasha with the cache

Natasha with the ammo can find. The geocache was called “The Old Meeker Ranch”, GC1CTMH. Unbeknownst to us, the owner had deactivated it the day we found it. It might still be there, but we’ve got the last entry in the cache log.

The 278 acre ranch area was homesteaded in 1882 by Frank Meeker, who was a rider for the Pony Express in his younger days. He named his spread Willow Creek and that is still the name of the year round stream that flows through the middle of it.

The front door and barn

The front door and the barn. The barn is relatively new, built by the last owners in the 1950’s.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE – The Pony Express carried mail to/from St. Joseph, MO and Sacramento,CA. Letters cost $10 an ounce. The 120 riders covered the 1,900 mi (3,100 km) route in 10 days. Most of the riders were teenagers, some as young as 14. They rode legs of 75-100 miles, going at breakneck speed day and night. Switching horses at way stations that were about 10 miles apart, the riders kept to the timetable despite weather, terrain, outlaws, hostile Indians and numbing fatigue. Although successful, the Pony Express was only in operation from April 1860 to October 1861. It was replaced by the transcontinental telegraph. We don’t know what Frank Meeker did in the 21 years between the Pony Express and the Willow Creek homestead, but he must have been one tough hombre.**

These are original buildings from the late 1880’s. Although preserved and open to the public, the ranch has been bedeviled by vandalism in recent years. So far, it’s been broken windows and torn exterior clapboard, which have been fixed by workers. In fact, the day we were there, a BLM crew came out to inspect the place and do any needed repairs.

The ranch changed hands numerous times, ending up with the Davis family in 1952. They built the new barn and worked the spread until 1974. It spent 30 years in limbo and disrepair before becoming part of the Black Hills National Forest in 2004.

The dilapidated kitchen

We’re explorers. Locked doors and “No Entry” signs drive us nuts. One of the great things about the ranch is that you can go inside the buildings, including the house. When the last family moved on, they left behind a treasure trove of artifacts – cans, jars, newspapers and more – on shelves and in closets. These aren’t props put there by someone. They’re the real deal. Use caution, of course. The upper floors aren’t safe. Watch out for weak spots in the structures and be alert for an occasional rattlesnake. Also keep in mind that this is wild country with black bears and mountain lions. If you have pets or small children, keep them close.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took over in 2004 and scheduled the property for demolition in 2006. A grass roots effort led by local artist Jon Crane and the Black Hills Historic Preservation Trust saved the ranch. They also raised funds for preservation work, an effort that is ongoing as we write this. A dedicated corps of volunteers working alongside the BLM and spearheaded by Historicorps keeps the ranch in a state of “arrested decay” for the public to visit.

Going out the way we came in

Looking at the way back. If you’re are a photographer, this place should be on your bucket list. Here are some great photos taken on the Old Meeker Ranch.

For your GPS. N43.8042º W109.5554º. These coordinates will put you right at the center of the ranch. Click on them for a Google map.

The Old Meeker Ranch is a unique historical treasure. It is one of the few ranch homesteads in the country that is maintained, open to the public and freely accessible. Concerned citizens, historians, artists, archaeologists, businesses, trusts and government agencies work hard to keep it that way. Please enjoy it responsibly and safely.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

Britain’s Day of Infamy – December 10, 1941

Hi again,

Almost everybody recognizes the date December 7, 1941. The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on that day is known in the history books as the Day of Infamy, a phrase used by President Roosevelt during his address to Congress asking for a Declaration of War. What most people don’t know is that our staunchest ally, Great Britain, had its own day of infamy three days later.

As the Pearl Harbor raiders were recovering on board their carriers, an equally calamitous event was unfolding in the western pacific. The Japanese Imperial Army was landing in southern Thailand and northern Malaya, while sending bombers to strike the crown jewel of the British empire – Singapore.

The landings and bombings on the 8th kicked off a two month campaign that would end in the surrender of Singapore, the destruction of the city and the largest defeat in British military history. Despite the clear and present danger posed by the Japanese aggression, the people of Singapore didn’t take much notice. Singapore had a worldwide reputation as an island fortress that rivaled the Rock Of Gibraltar. They were convinced that their island city was impregnable and that the Japanese wouldn’t dare attack it. Besides, they had an ace up their sleeve. The Royal Navy was in town, led by the pride of the fleet – the HMS Prince of Wales.

The HMS Prince of Wales

The HMS Prince of Wales was Britain’s newest, fastest and most heavily armed warship. Packing 10 x 14 inch guns, she could also fill the sky with flak from her secondary batteries and put up thousands of rounds of anti-aircraft fire per minute. She entered service in May 1941 and had her baptism of fire one week later when she traded salvos with the Bismark. During that running fight, she absorbed four hits from German 15 inch rounds – including a direct hit on the bridge – and kept fighting. Three months later, she carried Prime Minister Winston Churchill across the Atlantic to Newfoundland. There, he hosted on board his first council of war with President Franklin Roosevelt. She was a personal favorite of Churchill’s and considered invulnerable. Somebody forgot to tell the Japanese.

The fleet had arrived on December 2, sent by Winston Churchill in response to Japanese provocations in the region. Their timely arrival was a coincidence, but considerably lessened the impact of events on the 8th. British leaders were confident that the task force would deter the Japanese from attacking or make short work of them if they did.

As the Japanese prepared to attack south on the 8th, Task Force Z, under the command of Admiral Tom Phillips, sortied out of Sembawang Naval Base in northeast Singapore.  It consisted of the HMS Prince of Wales, the HMS Repulse and four destroyers. Their mission was to find and destroy the Japanese invasion fleet. Comprising 28 troop carriers and two aging battleships, it was turning circles somewhere off the coast of Malaya.  The mission to blast enemy ships out of the water was a dream come true for a battleship skipper and promised to be easy pickings for the Royal Navy.

The HMS Repulse

The HMS Repulse was a WW1-era heavy cruiser that was completely re-fitted just before the war. A veteran of Atlantic surface actions in both wars, she was still a capable fighter. However, her construction would do her in. Cruisers built in her era were designed for speed and agility. To get that, armor protection and watertight integrity were sacrificed. During the attack, the Repulse dodged 19 torpedoes. The Japanese finally caught her by coming in from both sides at once. She sank six minutes after the first hit.

Singapore was thoroughly infiltrated with Japanese spies and they knew the moment the ships slipped the harbor. Soon, every air and naval unit in the region was hunting for them and the invasion fleet was withdrawn to Indo-China. The British task force was oblivious to these developments, had no hard intelligence and no air cover. Additionally, all their new electronics, such as radars and fire control systems, started failing in the salty humid air of the tropics as soon as they arrived. None of it had been fixed. They were sailing deaf, dumb and blind. Still, Task Force Z kept searching. Finally on December 10, they found the Japanese but not the ones they were looking for.

Artist depiction of the attack on the HMS Prince of Wales

An unknown Japanese artist’s depiction of the attack on the HMS Prince of Wales. A Mitsubishi G3M “Nell” bomber is dropping a Type-91 aerial torpedo. Japanese torpedoes were the best in the world and exceptionally lethal. The Type 91 was fast, accurate and packed a 500 pound warhead. The first torpedo hit on the ship was back by the propellers and would have been fatal all by itself. It tore out the port side propeller shaft from its sealed passage into the hull, creating a breach that couldn’t be stopped. The ship lost speed and power and developed an immediate list to aft and port. The Japanese continued to pour it on until it disappeared beneath the waves of the South China Sea. In all, it took four torpedo hits and at least two direct hits from 500 pound bombs.

Scout planes and a submarine found the task force early in the morning on the 10th about 50 miles out from the Malayan port city of Kuantan.  While they tracked the British ships, every Japanese aircraft between Malaya and Saigon scrambled and went after them. The air attacks began around 1100.  Over 90 aircraft took part.  There wasn’t enough time or fuel to coordinate strikes so groups attacked on arrival as soon as they found the targets.  The Repulse and the Prince of Wales both took multiple hits from torpedoes and bombs.  The Repulse sank at 1230. The Prince of Wales went a little after 1300. Admiral Phillips and almost 1,000 crew members went with them.  The destroyers were untouched and rescued hundreds out of the water despite the threat of lurking submarines and more air attacks. The Japanese lost three aircraft and their crews.

Escaping from a sinking HMS Prince of Wales

The destroyer HMS Express rescues survivors from the badly listing HMS Prince of Wales. The attack is still under way. When the battleship rolled over in her death dive, she almost took the Express with her. As she rolled, her bilge keel along the bottom of the ship came up under the Express and gave her a 40,000 ton wallop. Fortunately, the destroyer was able to ride it out. Unlike the Repulse, which sank in minutes, the Prince of Wales took almost two hours of constant pounding before she went under.

This was the first time in military history that major surface combatants were sunk in the open ocean by hostile aircraft alone. It was a harbinger of what lay ahead. The battles of Coral Sea and Midway were just around the corner and they would change naval warfare forever.  From now on, carriers and their aircraft would take the fight to the enemy with the ships 100 miles apart or more.  There would still be surface battles in the years to come, but the heyday of the battleship was over.

The sinking of two of England’s finest warships sent shock waves all the way to London. Churchill later wrote in his memoirs, “…in all the war, I never received a more direct shock.”   The losses left the Allies with no capital warships west of Hawaii.  The western Pacific was now a Japanese lake. It didn’t last long. Four months later, the Japanese navy was smashed at Midway and they spent the rest of the war on the defensive.

The wrecks of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales were found after the war, in 183 feet and 223 feet of water respectively.  They are about eight miles apart. The Repulse rests semi-upright with a sharp list to port.  The Prince of Wales is completely upside down with much of her superstructure buried in the mud. In 2007, her ship’s bell was removed by British divers to prevent it from being stolen.  It now sits in a maritime museum in Liverpool, England.  Both ships are Crown property however, they are legal to SCUBA dive on and there are dive shops that make the trip regularly.  The Repulse is the better target being much shallower and with a lot more to see.  Both are deep decompression dives and not for beginners.

If you like to explore underwater, Singapore and Malaysia offer some top notch SCUBA diving. There are a lot of wrecks in the surrounding area including the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales. There are many others and dive shops make regular trips, with destinations for divers of all experience and ability levels. The South China Sea has excellent visibility most of the time and is warm as bath water in the shallower depths. If you’re a diver in Singapore, it’s worth checking out.

That’s all for now … Boris and Natasha

Random Shots – Coolest Courthouse Ever?

Coolest Courthouse Ever?

As we travel around the country, we often find ornate buildings in the middle of nowhere. This picture postcard scene is the county courthouse for Shackleford county Texas. It is located in Albany, about 30 miles north of Abilene. Built in 1884 by Scottish stone masons, it cost $49,000 – almost twice the original price estimate – and is still in full operation. It sits on a large town square that is right down the street from the Vintage Vanilla soda fountain. The carillion in the bell tower chines on the half hour and hour. The clock keeps excellent time. West Texas is full of ugly, hard scrabble towns but Albany isn’t one of them. Built at the height of the wild west, it has seen cattle drives, buffalo hunters, railroads, oil booms/busts and Commanche Wars. It has many century-old buildings that are still in use. There are parks and a bike trail on the old Texas Central railroad bed. They’ve also got a half dozen geocaches within walking distance of the courthouse. And check out that blue sky!

Vintage Vanilla, Albany, TX

Vintage Vanilla, Albany, TX

We found a cool little town named Albany about 30 miles north of Abilene, TX. Had a bite to eat at this 1907 drug store and soda fountain that’s still going strong. Very cool place and very nice people working there. It’s right on Main St. You can’t miss it. There are a dozen geocaches in town and lots more in the surrounding area. Once again, geocaching took us to a place we never would have seen otherwise.

Geocaching Destinations – Lewis and Clark Caverns

Forty five miles west of Bozeman, Montana and 60 miles northwest of Yellowstone Park is one of the largest and most spectacular limestone cavern complexes in the western hemisphere. Now part of the Montana State Park system, it was named for the leaders of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which passed nearby twice but never saw the caves.

In winter, the 50 degree cave air mixing with the cold air outside creates an effect that looks like smoke coming out of the ground.  The local Native Americans knew of the caves for centuries but there’s no indication that they ever went there.  It was considered a holy and forbidden place. If they ever explored it, they left absolutely no trace.  It was completely unknown to whites until its discovery by hunters in 1895, who were drawn to explore the mysterious ground smoke.

Subsequent to that, a miner and entrepreneur named Dan Morrison staked a claim to the land and began to explore the inside of the cavern. Working by the faint light of carbide headlamps and candle lanterns, he rigged 2,000 wooden steps and began leading eight hour tours through the caverns around the turn of the century. Some of the remnants of those steps can be seen in today’s tours.

View inside the caverns
A view deep inside the caverns. As part of the tour, shortly after this picture was taken, the guide got us in a small group and turned out the lights. The blackness was unbelievable. The eyes don’t adjust because there is zero light. In the days of Morrison and the CCC, men sometimes found themselves stranded in the caves with no light. Under those circumstances, there is no way out. They simply had to wait until someone found them.

The Northern Pacific Railroad sued over his stake, claiming the land belonged to them.  They won, but Morrison kept fighting them and leading tours up to his death in 1932 at age 80.

The railroad gave the land to the federal government and in 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps went to work. Working under many of the same conditions as Morrison had, they turned the caverns into what they are today. They widened passages and blasted the tunnel through which tours now exit. They also built steps or chiseled them into limestone to replace Morrison’s rickety wooden ones.  For safety, they laid an electrical grid to power lights and communications.  They also explored all chambers and hauled away tons of bat guano.

Steps inside the cavern
Steps built by the CCC showing you’re one mile high inside a mountain.

Today the caverns are part of a 3000 acre park of the same name.  There are campsites, hiking and biking trails, a visitor’s center, a store and  a cafe (summer only). Cavern tours are available from May 1 to September 30.

The tours are two hours long and can be strenuous. The altitude here is 5300 feet.  There is a long uphill walk to the entrance of the cavern, where you meet your guide. During the tour, you will ascend or descend 600 steps, slide through narrow tunnels between chambers and work your way around close passageways.  It covers about two linear miles and ends 200 feet below where you started. The temperature is 50 degrees year round.  Wear a sweater and good rubber soled shoes.  Also bring some water. If you are out of shape, extremely overweight or claustrophobic, you might want to skip this tour.  We’ve been on many cave/cavern tours and this one was probably the toughest one we’ve seen that’s open to the general public.

I would also take a flashlight.  The cave is wired with lights and communications systems.  The guide has radio contact with the Visitor Center at all times and checks in with them regularly.  But after being in that darkness for two minutes, I’d have my own backup with me.

A view of the park
KidsRN in the Visitor Center parking lot. Check out the scenery. The caverns are inside the barren mountain on the right. The GPS coordinates for the parking lot of the Lewis and Clark Caverns are N45.838624, W111.866831.

The rest of the park is breath taking (sometimes literally) and is an outdoorsman’s paradise.  There are no geocaches in the park, but there are a half dozen within a short drive and they are on the upper end of the difficulty scale.  If you’re looking for adventure caching, Montana is the place to be. More information and details about this cool place can be found on Montana’s state park website.

Rock on … The Cachemanian Devils

Geocaching Destinations – El Paseo del Rio (The Riverwalk), San Antonio, TX

Downtown San Antonio is home to one the most beautifully developed urban  areas in the country – The Riverwalk.  Many cities boast about how they have a “Riverwalk” but none come close to the one in San Antone. First conceived in the 1960’s, it has been evolving ever since and now extends all the way to Alamo Plaza. The river part of it is a man-made canal filled with water diverted from the San Antonio River.

View from hotel
View from our balcony in the Omni La Mansion del Rio Hotel. This is the best hotel we’ve ever stayed in. It was first class all the way.

The canal is lined on both sides with restaurants, shops and hotels, all in southwest decor and very classy. You won’t find any run down tourist traps here. You can find just about any cuisine in the world and dine year round indoors or out. Dining and tour boats ply the water.  Lush and gorgeous botanical gardens abound throughout the area. The Alamo, the IMAX theater, the convention center and other city highlights are all within walking distance or you can take the trolley.

Riverwalk Restaurants
Early morning and ready for another day of canal side dining. This is also prime geocaching time.

There are at least two dozen geocaches right on the Riverwalk and many more just a short distance off of it. Some are virtual, some are the real thing.  You can cover the whole Riverwalk and work off those great meals on the veranda with some geohunts. They present some unique challenges. The narrow canal area and tall buildings can interfere with a good GPS signal. And of course, you’ll be dodging muggles (non-geocachers).

Riverwalk
KidsRN at a geocache site on the Riverwalk.

Overall, it is a safe, friendly and fascinating place to visit. We are not usually enamored with commercial places, preferring to go off the beaten path, but we thoroughly enjoyed the Riverwalk. Bring your appetite, your walking shoes and your GPS.  You’ll need all three.

Cheers … The Cachemanian Devils